The Writer Who Built the World’s First Engine-Powered Submarine | History | Smithsonian
A plan of the Ictineo, the world's first engine-powered submarine. (Wikipedia)

The Writer Who Built the World’s First Engine-Powered Submarine

Narcis Monturiol loved the ocean’s corals so much, that he built a machine so he could better enjoy them

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A man cannot one day just decide to build a submarine, much less the first powered submarine, much less if that man is a writer. Yet that is just what Narcis Monturiol did.

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As a young firebrand of the mid-19th century, Monturiol flirted with inflammatory subjects including feminism and Communism, placing him under the watchful eye of an oppressive regime. When he fled to Cadaqués, an isolated town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, he found a peaceful fishing village where he could expand on his ideas of a Utopian world. It turned out that Cadaqués would also be the inspiration for his biggest idea.

In Cadaqués, the few locals mostly fished from the shore or from boats. Others dove for coral and returned with a magical diversity of things—fish, crabs, snails and, of course, great and wondrous corals, sold as decoration for local homes. Monturiol became transfixed by these treasures, seeing them as baubles befitting a Utopia. He admired the coral divers for their quest—a quest for discovery in an the unknown realm beneath the waters that he called “the new continent”—but was troubled by an accident in 1857 that left one diver dead by drowning.

He was so affected by the sight that he wanted to do something to make the life of coral divers easier. As Robert Roberts, one of Monturiol’s later collaborators put it, “The harvesting of valuable coral and the relatively scarce fruits born to those that dedicate their livelihood to this miserable industry…incited Narcís Monturiol.”

Munturiol had always been a dreamer. He was born in 1819 in Figueres, a town in Catalonia, the region that would later give birth to eminent artists including Salvador Dali, Antony Gaudi, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

Monturiol’s father was a cooper, designing and building barrels for the wine industry. Monturiol could have continued in his father’s footsteps but instead chose to become a writer and socialist revolutionary. At an early age, Monturiol began to write about feminism, pacifism, Communism and a new future for Catalonia, all of which are the sort of things that make dictatorships, such as that of then Spanish statesman Ramón María Narváez, uncomfortable. Persecuted for his beliefs, Monturiol fled to France for a while before returning to Spain. When his writings got in trouble again, this time in France, he came to Cadaqués, the coastal town just a few miles from Figueres.

In 1857, with visions of the new continent in his mind, his Utopia that he and his friends would create through writing and art, Monturiol went home to Figueres to begin his project. This all sounds ridiculous and quixotic, because it is.

Just how Monturiol came up with his specific plans is unclear. Perhaps thanks to his father’s influence, though Monturiol also hired a master builder of ships and a designer to help, the submarine came to look a bit like a giant wine barrel, tapered at both ends. It was at once simple and sophisticated.

Submarine technology wasn’t new to Monturiol or his contemporaries: historical mentions of “diving boats” can be traced to the time of Alexander the Great. The first real submarine – a boat capable of navigating underwater – was built by Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch inventor who served in the court of England’s King James I during the Renaissance. Drebbel’s crafts were manually powered, requiring 12 oarsmen to row the underwater vessel whose submersion was controlled by the inflating – or deflating – of rope-tied pig’s bladders placed under each oarsmen’s seat.  Into the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russians perfected Drebbel’s vision, creating the first prototype for a weaponized submarine under the patronage of Czar Peter I in June of 1720. Submarine technology continued to pique the interest of innovators – especially in Russia and Germany – but economic and scientific constraints hindered the expansion of submarine technology into the 19th century.

By the summer of 1859, just two years after the drowning, his dream was built. The submarine was 23 feet long and equipped with appendages for gathering coral and whatever else could be found in the great and unknown abyss. Monturiol was eager to test the submarine and took it for a trial with a crew of two other men, including the boat builder, in Barcelona’s harbor—even he was not bold enough to attempt a maiden voyage in in Cadaqués’ stormy bay. The submarine, named Ictíneo, a word Monturiol created out of the Greek words for fish and boat, was double-hulled, with each hull made of olive wood staves sheathed in copper. It moved thanks to Monturiol’s own foot power via two pedals, or at least that is how he hoped it would move.

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